“Because we can” has become a sort of mantra for partners, Helen Cresswell (left) and Jill Freeman. At 62 and 66, ‘the girls’ as they’re known, are not your stereotypical retirement village residents.
In fact their decision to move from the remote Oruaiti Valley in the Far North where they ran a boarding kennels, to a brand new retirement villa in Kerikeri, puzzled a number of their friends.
“They thought we were bonkers,” says Helen. “They said ‘you’re far too young and fit to go and live somewhere like that’. They still can’t comprehend that we actually like it!”
For Jill and Helen the move to Oakridge has brought freedom and lack of stress. No more worries about blocked ditches, fallen trees or roof repairs.
“The sheer sense of relief has blown me away,” Jill says.
Yet, says Helen, their decision was not so much a planned move as being nudged in a certain direction.
“When we decided to go on the market we had absolutely no intention of coming anywhere like this but our sale process was so awful we didn't want to go through it again.”
For Jill a period of elder abuse prevention work brought home how vulnerable older people can be, particularly if they don’t have family close by.
“All of our family are on the other side of the world,” she says.
Another deciding factor was remembering the experience of looking at properties when they first came to New Zealand. They were horrified at how many sellers were older people desperate to sell because of ill health, their properties becoming too much for them, or because they had lost their partner.
“You could see these imploring looks on people’s faces. ‘Please will you free me from this nightmare?’ It was really distressing,” Jill says. “We both agreed that we never, ever wanted to be in that situation.”
So the idea of a retirement village took hold. They had friends who had moved to Oakridge and asked each other if they dared consider it themselves.
The biggest difficulty was completely changing their attitude to money.
“Living here is in no way a financial investment,” Jill says. “That was a huge transition. But the bottom line was we really wanted less stress.”
Being the only gay couple in a village community of around 80 residents, hasn’t been an issue.
“We’ve not heard any adverse comments at all, but heterosexist assumptions do get a bit galling. That’s probably going to be our educational role here!”
There is talk of a rural lesbian elders’ village being established in New Zealand, but Jill and Helen prefer to live in a mixed community.Both agree it’s been easy getting to know people at Oakridge.
“Politically I certainly don’t agree with a lot of people, but despite that there’s a certain comradeship,” she says.
Activities such as indoor bowls and movie and quiz nights help with socialising, though both women are still working, so they can’t take advantage of everything that’s on offer. Helen washes buses and drives a school bus run, while Jill teaches Tai Chi and Alexander Technique and is an astrologer.
Since moving to the village Jill has started having piano lessons again for the first time in over 50 years.
“I asked around if anybody else plays the piano and just in this road there are four concert standard pianists – would you believe it?”
Both women feel as if they’ve settled in really well. Sometimes they miss the night sky and the fruit trees from their former rural home and, yes, there are the inevitable squabbles of small community life.
“I may yet write a sit com!” Jill laughs.
“We were advised when we came here to make sure to keep looking out beyond the village,” adds Helen. And that’s advice they’ve taken.
“We’ve had more trips away and more fun than we’ve had in the last 14 years since we came to New Zealand,” Helen continues. “One day we’re going to catch the bus down to Whangarei, aren’t we? Because we can!”
“Or go and see a show in Auckland – because we can,” echoes Jill.
And they both know they can rely on the neighbours to feed their three cats when they’re away – because they will.
See more about retirement villages
This story is part of a series exploring different living arrangements for seniors. The Going it together series is one way the Mental Health Foundation helps people prepare for a later life that has meaning, purpose and joy.